I have recently survived my third year of solo practice and am looking forward to more. For me, being solo suits my temperament and goals. For some of you, it may be the right choice and for others not.
Your success or failure as a solo practice will be determined not by the quality of your work, since many clients are sadly unable to discern high quality from bad, but on your ability to find and retain clients. Your personal interaction with potential and existing clients is the most important aspect of your success or failure as a solo. Clients can tell if you understand and are addressing their particular issues, but they cannot tell if claim 14 had an improperly formed Markush group in the patent application they just reviewed.
I started my solo practice in my second semester of my first year in law school, and still managed to graduate in 2.5 years. However, I had been a full time patent agent for several years as well as 13 years experience as an engineer. I had one corporate client who graciously sent one case every month for several months and got me over the hump. The rest was shear hard work but mostly dumb luck.
There are many ways to find clients: speaking engagements, getting involved with local inventor’s groups, advertising, but nothing is as effective as personal recommendations. Getting recommendations is a chicken and egg problem in that you cannot get work without a recommendation, and you cannot get a recommendation without work. That is where you need to begin to get your name out there through whatever means available.
Also, I had the benefit of many accomplished practitioners (some of whom I met through this blog as well as an adjunct professor at school) who were able to answer questions, debate issues, and first tried to talk me out of going solo and then encouraged me after I did so. Without that network, I would have felt much more alone and unprepared.
Going solo is great, but the first couple years of it is absolutely brutal. Get used to worrying if the phone will ever ring or if you will get any work to do next week. Have an enormous credit line or cash reserve and the guts to dip into it. Eat a lot of Raman noodles and peanut butter. Hand out a ton of business cards. Figure out creative ways to meet potential clients, and spend the time, money, and effort to do it. Other practitioners told me that it took them three years to build the practice to the point where their solo practice generated equivalent income to their previous job, and that is my experience as well. Going solo is a huge task, with many ups and downs. Get ready for the emotional and financial rollercoaster.
Whatever choices you make along the way, think about them from a business standpoint. Your solo practice is a business, and nothing more. Does this investment in time, money, or effort help my business immediately as well as long term? Does it make me more efficient? Are their risks associated with it? How do I mitigate those risks? It is easy to make emotional decisions about purchases, but the bottom line is: does this action help me make money, and is it the best way to spend my limited resources? As long as you avoid too many ‘emotionally’ based decisions, you should be fine.
While many of us, myself included, have long dreamed and fantasized about going solo, in the end, it is just a business. Each purchase, each interaction with a potential client, each choice about how your time is spent should answer the question: does this make good business sense?
One very important thing to realize is that the business cycle of legal work, at least in IP, is tremendously long. The gestation period for a client may be months or years before they engage you. Once engaged, the prosecution of a patent may take three to five years, and the enforcement period may be twenty years.
The lesson is that business decisions for a solo should have two time frames: a short time frame that focuses on cash flow, but also a very long time frame that looks at growing and supporting the business over the long haul. It is important to plant both types of seeds on a regular basis. Don’t neglect one for the other.
In law school, there is very little said about the business of law and how to run a practice. This means that it only takes a little business sense to be ahead of the curve. Running a business is inherently risky and there is a possibility that you will struggle or even fail. But with the risk comes reward, both financially and with those other, intangible things that drive us.